Saturday 19 May 2018

Agota Kristof, Trilogy

Do I have to come to Spain to remember I can read in french? For a few days with my old friend Annette in Puerto Banus (Port of Abuse, as the judge would have it) I took with me Agota Kristof's trilogy, which I haven't read since I first did, in the nineties. The familiar foreignness, the edge of french, brings the sense of isolation and retreat that I cherish on beaches. To be alone and warm turning over and back in your space in the sand, your reading senses are acute. Before I even got to the beach I'd read much of the first volume on the plane. In fact, each volume I read so fast that, in order to save some for later, I dipped about in what I'd read to find again what was so astounding. You can read and reread, turn over and back in the sun, and still not know. This is beyond knowing.

Agota Kristof learned french after escaping to Neuchâtel from Hungary in 1956; her french is clear as a bell, frightening, almost, the french you learn in Switzerland when you have escaped from seismic politicks and deep chill at the age of twenty-one.

Her french sounds as if it has been recently learned, under pressure and with relief, by children at school. The lessons her resilient twins set themselves in Le Grand Cahier, volume 1, are frightening in any language.
Exercice d'endurcissement du corps
Exercice d'endurcissement de l'esprit
Exercice de mendicité
Exercice de cécité et de surdité
Exercice de jeûne
Exercice de cruauté
It's a relief to read such decisive coverage of the human condition. Talk about home schooling. This is self-schooling in a totalitarian state, a state of incomprehension. Claus and Lucas, whose names are renditions of each other, are relentless in their push for the evenness of truth, all of which they record in the eponymous grand cahier. Their identity shifts but not their absolute loneliness or their absolute devotion to each successive situation in which they find themselves. In your own grand cahier you do not have to tell the truth, though that might be your avowed intent; in fact, by definition, you're already lying.

These are some other chapter headings.
Le chantage
Notre premier spectacle
En prison
La fuite
La séparation
The twins have a scrupulous ethical position at all times. Frightening as other autonomous children in literature, they're more more stark than enfants terribles, they have less style, more brink, more chill. Language always stops short. Scene after scene, no comment, no feeling. We are suddenly dependent on feeling now that it's not there, now that it is an indulgence no one can afford.

Volume 2, L'épreuve, is more episodic. Tales are told. People arrive and then disappear. Just as the reader starts to know a person or a situation, everything changes, the person disappears, by her own hand or his, the situation changes, everyone is face on to loss which ever way you look. The twins are now in two different unnamed countries. Agota Kristof as she reads is in two different countries, Hungary and Switzerland. As I read I am on the beach in Puerto Banus amid the whine of jet skis and the savour of factor 50; I am in my room at home in County Cork listening to Mozart. You are wherever you are and wherever you were before or would like to be.

By Volume 3, Le troisième mensonge, the third lie, the narrative is fractal, as it has to be in a totalitarian state. Through the eyes of characters we think are the ones we've known all along, we see earlier versions: the child who lives with his grandmother at the edge of town, and plays harmonica in cafés; the deaf boy; the limping boy; the boy whose father or whose mother is dead, perhaps. Handsome boy, handsome girl, similar age, half sister or no relation. Every relationship is there to be fractured—by death, by accident, murder, suicide, escape.

The twins of Volume 1 are not united in Volume 3, we're not in the realm of satisfactory endings. Claus is now Klaus, and orthographically no longer inside the spelling of Lucas. There may not have been any twins in the first place, they were a fable, the two sides of a thwarted intimacy. It doesn't read like a tease of our expectations, it reads like mortal confusion, irresolvable loss, of identity, family and future.

Strong stuff for the beach. My ethical position, reading Agota Kristof on the beach, is clear: leave me be, leave me to think to the sound of the sea and then turn over. Almost total detachment from where I am, but hardly escapist.

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